The women who performed at the WOW Café Theatre on the Lower East Side of New York City sometimes called themselves the Uncooperative Cooperative. Holly Hughes ’77 was one of those women. She has also said, more than once, that WOW saved her life.
WOW, or Women’s One World, a feminist theatre space started in the early 1980s, was (and still is) a place where many gay women like Hughes found themselves and their art. WOW became the safe place where women who had long felt themselves on the margins of society could express themselves as rebels even while developing lasting bonds of friendship and support with each other. Their uncooperative selves found cooperation in each other.
Hughes is a contributing editor to Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café Theater (co-edited with Carmelita Tropicana and Jill Dolan). The book, published by University of Michigan Press in 2015, is a collection of memories, play scripts, and photographs of WOW’s first decade. Authors, along with Hughes, include playwright and actor Lisa Kron ’83; Carmelita Tropicana from the theater troupe the Five Lesbian Brothers; and actors and playwrights Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, Deb Margolin, and others.
“WOW was so warm and welcoming,” she says. “It was my sorority. They were breaking the rules. I was looking for that kind of sense of community. Particularly a feminist sort of community.”
WOW was different than other theatre groups in that no play was censured, no auditions were required, any play got the stage. Whatever members wrote was performed, no questions asked.
“The idea that was implicit in this was that people get better by doing the work,” Hughes says.
Having that kind of acceptance, Hughes found, fostered a daring creativity. She had expected to work the back stage, but the Café was too small—“I think maybe it was 12 feet across,” Hughes says—to have a back stage. She instead found herself performing and writing plays of her own. And she found she liked it.
“When I say now that WOW saved my life—I came of age in a place where I couldn’t access a feminist and LGBT movement. And while I loved K, and I have fond memories of my time there, it was at a time before we had women’s studies, for example. I was really struggling with trying to figure out who I was in the world, and it wasn’t just personal questions about my sexuality. It was larger questions about identity and a larger political landscape, about feminism and what was then known as the gay liberation movement. WOW helped put my personal struggles into a larger political context. That helped me enormously.
“At WOW, I was able to have conversations with women that didn’t make me feel crazy,” Hughes adds. “Working on this book, I realized a lot of women coming of age at the same time I did, in the 70s and 80s, the way that they experienced their gender, their sexual identity, was with the feeling that they were crazy. Their sense of injustice was made to seem like a psychological problem. Looking back, I realized how adrift we all felt. But here at WOW we found affirmation.”
Hughes found her voice as a performer and as a playwright. Her work has earned her critical praise, including two Obie Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (one of which was recalled when her art was discovered to have a gay theme), Creative Capital, and others.
Hughes studied visual art at Kalamazoo College. “And I took a lot of English. I loved it. I wasn’t an English major, but I was very interested in writing, but still thinking of myself as a visual artist. This was the world of which I wanted to be a part.”
In art and theatre, too, Hughes says she has seen a huge shift in work by and about women and groups at the margins who have not always found venues for their art.
“In my more than 30 years working in theatre and performance art, I’m seeing incredibly thoughtful, innovative, provocative, confusing work done about gender and sexuality and race. We are moving away from the stereotypes. Things are starting to shift, they are starting to break open. And audiences are asking for it. Audiences want to be challenged.”
As a professor today in theatre and drama, at the Stamps School of Art and Design, and of women’s studies at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hughes strives to teach the upcoming generations to think about the differences in people in a new way. Sharing the manuscript of Memories of the Revolution while still in manuscript with some of her students, she found that the material and the experiences recounted drew interest.
“I’m really interested in uncovering what my students want to say,” Hughes says. “What their desires are, what’s burning and big inside them. I want to help them put that into a larger context.”
While some of the questions with which Hughes grappled in her earlier years on the stage are less demanding today, she finds that some of her students have questions of their own, ones that fit the context of their times and that require a voice that is just as personally defining.
“My students who are not white, who are not male, who are not cisgender, students who come from poverty or other experiences of marginalization—there’s a process of finding a voice that you feel can be heard and respected,” Hughes says. “I can help them find that voice.”